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State senate takes a look at Rep. Zulkosky's bill that would provide state recognition of Alaska's tribes

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Photo by Tiffany Zulkosky
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Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel) on the Alaska House floor.

An Alaska House-passed bill that would provide state recognition of tribes was presented in the state senate on Feb. 10. Introduced by Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky of Bethel, House Bill 123 passed through the House easily last year, but faces a more difficult path through the Republican-controlled senate.

“House Bill 123 is a bill that would codify federal recognition of Alaska's tribes in state law for the first time,” Zulkosky said on Feb. 17, presenting in front of the Senate State Affairs Committee, which would need to pass the bill before it could head to the senate floor for a vote.

According to Zulkosky, state recognition of Alaska’s tribes would just mean that the state of Alaska acknowledges tribes exist. The federal government already does that. There are 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. This bill would bring Alaska into that same understanding.

Speaking to the senators, Zulkosky also focused on what the bill would not do. “House Bill 123 does not create any additional rights or privileges that tribes do not already have,” Zulkosky said. She said that there would be absolutely no changes to the legal or financial relationship between tribes and the state as a result of the bill.

Zulkosky said that what the bill would do is create a better working relationship between the state and Alaska’s tribes, especially at a time when the state is saying it wants to partner with tribes on areas like child welfare and education.

“I think it's difficult for us in the Legislature to speak about expanding our relationships with tribes leveraging these federal dollars when we don't statutorily acknowledge their existence to begin with,” Zulkosky said.

In the same committee meeting, Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, expanded on why this bill and a good working relationship between tribes and the state is so important now. There’s a lot of money at stake. The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in 2021 is expected to bring billions of dollars into Alaska over the next several years. Some of that money will flow through the state government, and some of it will pass on to Alaska’s tribes. Kitka said that passing House Bill 123 “just allows a tighter collaboration, and it's just an absolutely critical period of time.”

“Even though some might see it as symbolic, it's very meaningful to us people who've been here since time immemorial, and who have endured colonization, and are trying to claw back the impact of historical trauma,” said Natasha Singh, speaking on what state recognition would mean to Alaska's tribes. Singh is a Stevens Village tribal member and the vice president of legal affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis has also spoken in favor of this bill in the past.

Despite proponents of the bill emphasizing that it would not increase tribes’ legal powers, that’s what some Republicans have been worried about. However, those worries seem to be subsiding.

“I am very sensitive to the fact that what we don't need are, you know, 230 independent nations running around the landmass of Alaska, you know, one of those being a state government, and then 229 other nations, per se,” said State Affairs Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla, discussing HB 123. “That being said, I think it's long overdue that the state of Alaska and tribes acknowledge each other, as it exists in the U.S. Constitution when you look at the deeper side of the law.”

The Senate State Affairs Committee has not scheduled a vote on House Bill 123. If the Senate does not pass House Bill 123 and get the governor’s signature, Alaska’s voters would get to decide whether Alaska’s tribes receive state recognition. An initiative has collected more than enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot this year.

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